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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Robson and Janowicz made people notice


Choosing the "rookie" or "newcomer" of the year in tennis is a dodgy business because both WTA and ATP pros test the pro waters at very early ages thanks to things such as wild cards, cradle-to-grave professionalism and a the tradition that brings Open and junior division players together to play simultaneously at Grand Slams.

Laura Robson
Laura Robson reacts during her match against China's Li Na in the third round of the 2012 U.S. Open.

There's no better example of the problem (if that's what it is) than Laura Robson, who qualifies for newcomer of the year honors in my book even though she was a Wimbledon champion at age 14 (she won the junior girls' title) and played her first main-draw match there at 15 (she lost a tough three-setter to seasoned Slovakian pro Daniela Hantuchova).

In addition, being British ensured that Robson would get plenty of ink around Wimbledon time every year, so if you weren't paying close attention you could be forgiven for thinking of her as a player in her early or even mid-20s. The fact is Robson is just 18, and she qualifies for newcomer honors by my admittedly subjective standard: She's young and was outside the top 100 at the start of the year.

On the ATP side, the case is a little more clear-cut even if the criteria are not. Very few people had heard of Jerzy Janowicz before the final Masters event of the year, even though the 22-year-old Pole had slowly crept up into the top 100 through the course of the year, starting from a lowly No. 221.

At the Paris Masters, though, he slashed his way through qualifying and upset five top-20 players (including No. 3 Andy Murray) before David Ferrer ended his run in the championship match. As a result, Janowicz skyrocketed in the rankings, winding up with a year-end ranking of No. 26. That's a huge leap.

Robson did not make a comparably spectacular breakthrough, but she rose steadily from No. 131 to No. 53. Along the way, the left-handed, 5-foot-11, 148-pound power baseliner demonstrated that while she still lacks some of the explosive athleticism of a Grand Slam champion, she has a sound grasp of strategy and tactics and has a good head on her shoulders.

Having to deal with the pressures imposed by the British media (and somewhat deflected in recent years by Murray) has probably helped Robson. She's developed into a poised, cheerful and well-adjusted young lady. Although she improved steadily through the year, the game-changer for Robson probably was the U.S. Open.

At that event, she posted back-to-back upsets of U.S. Open icon Kim Clijsters (a four-time finalist and three-time champ) and ninth-seeded former French Open champ Li Na. Robson then played a competitive match against defending champ Sam Stosur in the fourth round but lost in straight sets.

Inspired by that run, Robson next played Gangzhou (China), where she became the first British woman to make a main tour final since Jo Durie in 1990. She lost that hard-fought title bout to Hsieh Su-Wei (6-4 in the third), but continued to play well through her final event of the year in Osaka, Japan.

By contrast, Janowicz truly came out of nowhere. His "career highlights" tab on the ATP website consists of his accomplishments this year. His breakthrough in Paris represents the only final he's made in any official tournament, singles or doubles. He earned no Robson-like junior accolades. Janowicz didn't even break into the top 100 until mid-July.

But Janowicz , a 6-foot-8, 200-pound right-hander, has so much power that he could donate some to his Polish countrywoman Agnieszka Radwanska (and lord knows she needs it!) and still have enough left over to be a menace on the ATP tour. You know how it is with the boys; when power talks, everyone listens.

Move over, Milos Raonic and John Isner, there's a new giant with an earth-shaking serve in town. But this one can hit effective sliced backhands and feathery drop shots as well.